The aim of this post is to investigate the question of whether or not the learning pyramid (see following figure – click to expand) is true or false, or perhaps a hoax, myth, misdirection, useful model and/or theory based on verifiable research.
In the end, I confirm my belief that it is a hoax/myth. I don’t believe it is useful in guiding the design of learning and teaching, in fact, I believe it to be destructive. It aims to provide a simplistic and wrong basis on which to guide design, when such design should be guided by and engage with a recognition that teaching is complex, difficult and contextual and can’t be improved by silver bullets
What do you think? (I do recognise that my direct opposition in the last paragraph is likely to significantly limit alternate perspectives, but I though I’d best be clear of my view given the prevalence of the figure.)
Origins of the post
A colleague from my current institution has recently been attending the Jossey-Bass Online Teaching and Learning conference and has been blogging her reflections. In her first post on the conference Wendy mentions a presentation by Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt (who, from their website, seem to be very informed folk around online learning etc.) entitled “Assessing the online learner: resources and strategies for faculty”.
They put up a pyramid I quite liked that had retention rates for lectures at 5% at the top through to teaching others as 90% effective for retaining information (see book, p. 19) and suggested assessments should be aimed at the bottom half of the triangle (discussion activities, practice by doing, teaching others).
This sounds an awful lot like the above pyramid.
Quite some time ago I came across this post by Will Thalheimer. The post essentially seeks to argue that the pyramid is not based on any published research and suffers from a number of major flaws. I was convinced by this post and have since taken the view that the pyramid is false/a myth. I believed this to the extent that when another colleague used the learning pyramid in a blog post, I posted a comment linking back to the naysayer post by Thalheimer.
I was going to post a similar response to Wendy’s post but couldn’t remember some of the resources, so I revisited my comment on Scott’s post. To my surprise, I discovered that Scott had responded to my comment. The surprise arose both from the fact that I don’t remember receiving a notification of the reply (though that may say more about my memory than the technology); and that Scott was claiming that the learning pyramid was based on research that addressed some of the problems. i.e. that there was some basis. In addition, Scott suggests that the questions raised about the pyramid may arise from folk with questionable motives and also suggests that the naysayers don’t provide evidence or experimental research.
I’m going to spend a bit of time seeing what I can find about this difference of perspective. Is the pyramid based on some research? Have I been basing my dismissal of the pyramid on work by people with an axe to grind? Is there evidence to suggest that the pyramid is wrong?
Origins of the pyramid
One obvious place to start is to find out whether the proposed research actually exists. Does the research institute that is supposed to have done this research exist?
Lalley and Miller (2007) claim
No specific credible research was uncovered to support the pyramid, which is loosely associated with the theory proposed by the well-respected researcher, Edgar Dale. Dale is credited with creating the Cone of Experience in 1946.
This is from the abstract of their paper displayed on this ERIC page. My institution’s library doesn’t have access to the full text in electronic form, I’m chasing up a paper copy. (Of course the library website is currently down so I can’t log a request to get a copy of the paper…). Annoyingly, the institution I’m doing my PhD through has digital access to the journal, but not for 2006 through 2008.
Further web research has found a copy of the Lalley and Miller (2007) paper online here. The aim of this article is
Therefore, it is our intention to examine the following: the source of the general structure of the pyramid, Dale’s Cone of Experience; available research on retention from the methods identified by the pyramid; and consider the relationship(s) among the methods.
Rather than Bell Laboratories being the source of research, the research is generally referenced back to the National Training Laboratories in Bethel Maine. From information on the web it appears that this organisation is now known as the NTL Institute. Lalley and Miller (2007) quote from a response from the NTL Institute to a query about the pyramid
Institute at our Bethel, Maine campus in the early sixties when we were still part of the National Education Association’s Adult Education Division. Yes, we believe it to be accurate–but no, we no longer have–nor can we find–the original research that supports the numbers. We get many inquiries every month about this–and many, many people have searched for the original research and have come up empty handed. We know that in 1954 a similar pyramid with slightly different numbers appeared on p. 43 of a book called Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, published by the Edgar Dale Dryden Press in New York. Yet the Learning Pyramid as such seems to have been modified and always has been attributed to NTL Institute.
Lalley and Miller (2007) go onto give some arguments about why it is appears questionable that this research was ever/could ever be done.
The origins and data for the pyramid look very questionable. So, is there data or research to suggest that the pyramid is wrong?
What’s the literature say?
Lalley and Miller (2007) then go onto review the literature about each of the different methods of instruction included in they pyramid. The aim being to find out what the literature says about retention rates. I have not read all of what they have written (I have a thesis to get back to), but in summary they say (emphasis added)
The research reviewed here demonstrates that use of each of the methods identified by the pyramid resulted in retention, with none being consistently superior to the others and all being effective in certain contexts.
Lalley and Miller’s (2007) final conclusion is that direction instruction, such as a lecture, remains very important as a part of the mix of approaches required. They close the article with
Not surprisingly, this returns us to the assertions of Dale (1946) and Dewey (1916) that for successful learning experiences, students need to experience a variety of instructional methods and that direct instruction needs to be accompanied by methods that further student understanding and recognize why what they are learning is useful.
Rutger van de Sande from a University in the Netherlands has blog post that connects with this myth. He supervised some students (physics teachers) in an experiment to test retention. The rationale and results are explained on this knol. In a small scale study, likely to have all sorts of limitations, they established different percentages to the pyramid, which they conclude “to be an all too simplistic model”.
This, admittedly small, collection of research (though Lalley and Miller draw on a significant body of research) seems to provide evidence and experimental research to disprove the ideas of the pyramid.
Axe to grind?
Do the folk questioning the pyramid have an axe to grind? That’s a difficult question to answer without significant knowledge of who they are. So, let’s start with the question of who they are.
- James Lalley
According to this page is the Acting Chair of the Education Department at D’Youville College. He’s also an author of a book published by SAGE who publish this author’s bio. ERIC lists these publications
- Rutger van de Sande – an “experience educational researcher and teacher educator”.
Looks like a keen academic trying to make his way in the world.
- Will Thalheimer – consultant and researcher
Okay, a consultant, which potentially means there’s some potential benefit in getting more people to his site (which has ads). Attacking a broadly accepted idea is a good way to attract attention. Given the challenge to the effectiveness of learning styles, you could argue that there is a trend developing here. (I should note that academics in search of citations have the same motivation)
- Christopher Harris – a librarian/educator/adminstrator
Don’t think these guys form a cabal aimed at attacking the legitimacy of an ideas based on sound empirical research. You could argue that the attention given by attacking such a widely accepted idea might be motivation, but the data seems to suggest that the pyramid is based on questionable to non-existent data.
Why does this continue to get air play?
A number of the folk who have written about this pyramid or commented on blogs about it have asked the question “Why does it continue to get air play?”. I have a preference for two explanations:
- “looking for a silver bullet, a simplistic approach to a complex issue” (Metiri Group, 2008)
Teaching and learning is a wicked problem, especially in some of the increasingly diverse contexts people are facing. For some/many folk it’s easier to believe in a simple, universal solution than engage in the full complexity of the problem. This is, I suggest, encouraged to extreme ends in the increasingly “corporate world” of higher education.
- Confirmation bias – “an irrational tendency to search for, interpret or remember information in a way that confirms preconceptions or working hypotheses.
i.e. a lot of education folk don’t like lectures. A lot of education folk have a barrow to push in terms of problem-based learning, discovery learning, authentic learning…..etc. The pyramid confirms the biases these folk have and hence they are more ready to accept than critique.
I don’t like the way most lectures are given, they are very poor. I like even less that most of the focus of many courses is on giving lectures. But I don’t believe there’s a silver bullet.
Of course, the idea that I don’t believe there is a silver bullet – i.e. I don’t the application authentic learning will save a course, a program, an institution or the world – means that I have a confirmation bias that leans towards thinking the learning pyramid is a hoax.
Lalley, J. and R. Miller (2007). “The learning pyramid: Does it point teachers in the right direction?” Education and Information Technologies 128(1): 64-79.
Metiri Group (2008). Multimodal learning through media: What the research says, Cisco Systems: 24.